We all know that writing is a creative act, but many of us overlook the fact that reading, which is such an inseparable part of writing, also involves the reader's imagination in ways that literary theorists and neurobiologists have been studying for some time.
I was reminded of the work of Norman Holland of the University of Florida and others when I encountered a blog by Nicholas Carr a few months back. He writes about how narrative literature "takes hold of the brain in curious and powerful ways."
It seems that, as we read a story, our own experiences and knowledge join with the narrative to create something like a dream of the work we read, and we inhabit that dream as if it were an actual place, Carr says.
You might be thinking, "Of course, I know that reading, like immersion in a film, is emotionally engaging and absorbing, that we lose ourselves." But did you know that experiencing strong feelings from a fictional work can cause alterations in brain functions? I don't know how the reactions a reader has can ever be measured in a laboratory, but the mounting evidence from various researchers about the social and psychological implications of reading is impressive.
Quoting Keith Oatley as well as Holland, Carr says that "a book is rewritten in the mind of every reader, and the book rewrites the reader's mind in a unique way, too." An astounding statement.
Does reading literature make us more attentive to the real-life feelings of others around us? Do we become more empathetic? Such are some of the imponderables as we consider what happens when the reader withdraws from his or her own world into a fictive world, which can be a way to connect more deeply into the inner lives of ourselves and "others"--even if these others are imagined characters.
If reading fiction can alter the reader's personality in various ways, imagine what happens cognitively to the writer, who both creates alternate worlds and, in revising his work, becomes the first reader of this work--and is changed in ways yet to be determined.